HELENA — It wasn't long ago skijoring contestant Ebbie Hansen transitioned from entering her first-ever competition to becoming one of the top competitors in the United States.
After entering her first event in Bozeman when encouraged by her friend, avid skier Aaron Griffin, Hansen knew she became hooked after capturing first place.
"(Before entering my first competition), I had never seen the sport, but I thought it looked like it would be fun," Hansen said. "I knew how to ski and ride a horse, so I told Aaron, 'I'll pull you,' because I knew he was a good skier. After my first event, I was hooked and have been competing ever since."
Hansen had a barrel racing, roping, and ranching background. She rode an American Quarter Horse they referred to as "Zeek the Streek,"
"I knew right away after our first event this was going to develop into a sort of obsession," Hansen said. "Skijoring is such a challenge on a daily basis as a rider to keep on your horse, and our horse was in great condition. When you get to a race, it is the strategy of the skier, the rider, and the horse, but the skier is of up-most importance to get through the course as fast as you can without penalties."
Hansen captured the national skijoring sport division championship in 2016 and proceeded to win her first national professional skijoring championship title at Red Lodge in 2017. She won five out of the eight races that season. Hansen and her team are aiming for a third-consecutive title.
Part of Hansen's lightning fast transformation to the sport was her rodeo background as a barrel racer and a roper, which will help her compete in the second annual skijoring event called "Race for the Gold" held at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Helena's Lewis & Clark Fairgrounds.
The event will include 80 percent of entry fees paid back with a $10,000 minimum. There will also be a free skijoring clinic at 2 p.m. Friday at the Lewis & Clark Fairgrounds. Youth/Snowboard teams will be $25 per team. Contestants can register at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Delta Colonial Hotel in Helena.
Skijoring, which is becoming a favorite recreational and competitive winter sport, is a timed event that involves a rider on skis pulled by a horse with a rider down a track.
The team of the rider, the horse and skier go through slalom gates and navigate through obstacle courses, while trying to gather objects in the fastest time without being penalized for missing gates or rings.
The skijoring season typically starts at the beginning of the year, but because of the unseasonable weather, many skijoring events usually scheduled for January were delayed.
"I start exercising my horses about 60 days with pretty consistent exercise, and on the first of January, it's a ride every day kind of thing," Hansen said.
Hansen traveling to places such as Jacksonville, Wyoming, Whitefish, Haille, Idaho, and Leadville, Colorado, which is the oldest skijoring event in the United States. She is leading the Skijoring USA standings with no real secret to her success.
"You just have to go to as many races as you possibly can and place as good as possible," Hansen said. "You just have to win some because the money is excellent."
Skijoring has become the winter games version of the warm-weather sport pickleball. Like pickleball, skijoring is growing into a booming recreational winter sport, according to co-organizer of the "Race For Gold," Mark LaRowe.
"The growth of skijoring in the last four years has been tremendous," LaRowe said. "I counted not too long ago that there is a total of 14 new races in the last year in cold weather places like Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, South Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maine. The sport has become very popular and is quickly growing with both contestants and spectators."
LaRowe, a photographer by trade, was doing some photography in Jackson, Wyoming, for a client and was introduced to the sport of skijoring that weekend.
"The skijoring contestant and I got talking and they invited me to photograph the event," LaRowe said. "My involvement has grown each year. I had never seen the sport before, but it was a lot of fun to watch, and even more fun to photograph. It intrigued me. I was hooked from there and became more involved with it."
LaRowe, with other committee members, organized the skijoring event last year. According to LaRowe, the event was a success.
"We had no idea how many contestants would show up, and how many people might attend the first event in Helena," LaRowe said. "The first race was a little scary, but we were blown away by the response. It had 110 skijoring last year, which was the largest turnout for any race in the country. We estimated also about 3,000 spectators, which is the second-largest spectator turnout, second to Leadville, Colorado."
LaRowe and his committee members recruit volunteers to ensure the event would run smoothly.
"We recruited volunteers on the race weekend who sold tickets, and we got a lot of support from the Lewis and Clark staff," LaRowe said. "I would probably say we had over 30 people take care of all of the tasks on race weekend."
The Helena event is a qualifying race for a larger sanctioning body, the National Organization of Skijoring USA that includes the Montana region, central region and a southern region of the National Organization of Skijoring USA. LaRowe is vice chairman of all of that and hopes participants qualify for the Skijor USA National Championship finals Mar 9-10 in West Yellowstone.
The race in Helena will have a payout, which is contingent on the number of contestants, something LaRowe doesn't anticipate will be a problem despite initially scheduling this weather-related event in January and having to reschedule because of a lack of adequate amount of snow to put on this successful event.
"The growth has been tremendous with a nearly explosive growth," LaRowe said. "We are already having conversations about 2020 regarding several new races. There is a tremendous amount of interest, and new requests for information (related to the sport) all the time."
LaRowe, who continues to be one of the primary advocates towards propelling the sport's growth, hopes to continue to expand the growth in Helena and the region.
"Our primary goal is just to put on a fun and safe event that spectators will enjoy," LaRowe said. "That is our priority is to make it safe and fun for everyone. We would like to get a lot of people to come out and watch, and attract more sponsors and vendors that will show up that weekend. We hope to have the ability to pay a larger pot based on having more contestants and having a prevalent race with spectators. It's a circular cycle."